An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
(Chair of the SIS)
Clearly these are challenging times in all kinds of ways. The introduction of the new fees regime poses questions for all university disciplines, while the general climate of economic constraint has meant that some Italian departments have been under significant pressure for a good while. The saddest development over the last year has been the closure of the department in Salford, even though it had healthy recruitment figures and was held in huge esteem by its students – it is worth looking at the letter that I and other members from the Italian studies community wrote to the Times Higher on the subject: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=419962&c=1.
But though we face a range of searching questions, I do not think the situation is bleak, and this is a point that I and others made strongly in our commentary on the situation in Salford. A number of universities have been strengthening their Italian departments and this tendency has been most evident with the appointment of a Chair in Italian Studies at the University of St. Andrews; there is greater awareness of the usefulness of the study of Modern Languages at university level especially as a result of the policy statements that have been made by the British Academy, Languages Matter and Languages Matter More and More; the importance of the year abroad for language disciplines has been amply demonstrated, largely as a result of an extremely effective campaign pursued by the UCML.
So Italian studies, like any language discipline, needs to be aware of the rapidly changing context in which it is situated and it needs to participate as actively as it can in the initiatives that play quite a large part in shaping the future. The SIS certainly seeks to present the point of view of the discipline in debates at national level and it has been very well served by people like Matthew Treherne and Daniela LaPenna who have represented Italian studies in the work that the UCML does to promote and to defend Modern Languages. Likewise, in her role on the executive committee of the SIS, Danielle Hipkins is working on the most effective ways in which the discipline can connect with the study of Italian outside the academy.
But the role of the SIS is also to encourage connectivity within the discipline and to ensure that we work out collectively how best to approach the challenges that we face. An important part of its role is to provide a forum for the exchange of views and it does though sessions at its yearly conferences – Jim Coleman, for example, spoke at St Andrews – and especially at the AGM. At the last AGM there was a session on employability and this year we intend to organize a session on recruitment in Italian studies. The SIS also clearly attempts to indicate future directions in research both through the work of the journal and through the discussions that are organized by the conferences that are sponsored by the subject association. Giving a paper at an SIS conference is not simply about delivering the findings of one’s own research but about participating in a much wider discussion about how research within the discipline should proceed. Lastly, one of the tasks that the SIS has set itself is to try to express as incisively as possible what the discipline stands for and one of the most effective means of doing so will be the new website that is due to go live this autumn.
The way in which the SIS addresses questions regarding the postgraduate community is under continual review. The job of the postgraduate representative, currently Ilaria Masenga (Exeter), is to raise issues regarding the community with the executive committee of the SIS and to decide which university will hold the next postgraduate conference. The association has just appointed a member of academic staff, Francesca Billiani, to work alongside the postgraduate representative on all issues. One initiative, for example, that we would like to pursue is making sure that more academics attend the SIS postgraduate conferences and become engaged in discussing the issues that are raised in particular papers and, more generally, in the course of the conference.
In addition to this, the SIS supports a wide range of conferences within the discipline and it stipulates that its support is conditional on bursaries for postgraduates to attend being made available. It supports the provision of postgraduate training programmes that are offered by institutions like the IGRS and it awards a prize for postgraduate work every year. The SIS seeks to support grant applications made by more than one Italian Department by supplying funding for researchers to meet and work on their proposal. Successful grant applications are one way in which the discipline can increase the number of funded PhDs and post-doctoral placements that are on offer, and recently Italian studies has been very successful in attracting a high level of grant income.
In an environment in which there is considerable competition for more limited funds, it is important for a discipline to be clear about its priorities and to make sure that its thinking is as joined up as possible. Initiatives like the RAE and the REF tend to encourage a sense of competition between departments which is valid up to a point, but ultimately can be destructive insofar as it encourages departments to think of themselves as separate islands. The discipline needs to be more compact and the SIS needs the participation of all of its members. Specifically regarding the postgraduate community, I think that there may be scope for some initiatives to come together. There is a series of excellent postgraduate conferences in the UK and Ireland, and one could work on the formal presentation of a calendar of events. I have attended the latest two postgraduate events in Cork and I think, as I suggested above, the presence of a significant number of academics at postgraduate events is worth trying to encourage.
I am hopeful that the development of the new website, work on which Lucia Rinaldi is coordinating, will lead to more awareness of what initiatives are being pursued in different areas of the discipline. The postgraduate page will be a prominent part of this. Lastly, I think that it is important for postgraduates to make their presence felt at events such as the AGM which is probably the most important forum for discussing every aspect of Italian Studies.
I think that, as should be the case, there are a great many connections between scholars based in Italy and researchers who are working in the UK and Ireland. Scholars working in Italy participate in the conferences of the SIS and in the workshops and conferences that are organized by individual departments or researchers, they make an important contribution to Italian Studies and everyone working in the UK and Ireland has their own extensive networks with colleagues in Italy. Many postgraduates who come to study in the UK and Ireland have done their first degrees in Italy, while post-doctoral competitions, such as the Newton and Marie Curie schemes, are one way in which the mobility of early career researchers is enhanced. I don’t think that there is a problem of Italian studies being disconnected from Italian studies – or, more precisely, its equivalent – in Italy. I would just make one point, even though it is perhaps a rather obvious one, and that is that anyone working in Italian studies in the UK or Ireland is working within a specific context and has to bear in mind that he or she is addressing a wide, and rather eclectic, range of audiences. Whatever one may or may not think about the current emphasis on impact, it does force us all to think about who are the beneficiaries of our research.